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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

is there any downside to rating films as to whether they pass the Bechdel Test?


You may have heard that some Swedish cinemas and TV networks are beginning to grade films based on whether they pass the Bechdel Test, the simple and semisatirical measure of how well the female half of the human race is represented on film. The simple is this: To pass, a film must

1. Have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

The semisatirical is this: The test is absurdly easy for a film to pass — Thor: The Dark World does so, for instance, by the obvious expedient of casting more than one female actor in supporting roles as characters who can info-dump sci-fi jargon at us — and yet a ridiculous number of films fail… which demonstrates how poorly women are represented in movies.

Anyway… from The Guardian:

You expect movie ratings to tell you whether a film contains nudity, sex, profanity or violence. Now cinemas in Sweden are introducing a new rating to highlight gender bias, or rather the absence of it.

To get an A rating, a movie must pass the so-called Bechdel test…

Bio Rio is one of four Swedish cinemas that launched the new rating last month to draw attention to how few movies pass the Bechdel test. Most filmgoers have reacted positively to the initiative. “For some people it has been an eye-opener,” said [Ellen] Tejle [director of the Stockholm arthouse cinema].

Beliefs about women’s roles in society are influenced by the fact that movie watchers rarely see “a female superhero or a female professor or person who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them”, Tejle said, noting that the rating doesn’t say anything about the quality of the film. “The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens,” he added.

The state-funded Swedish Film Institute supports the initiative, which is starting to catch on. Scandinavian cable TV channel Viasat Film says it will start using the ratings in its film reviews and has scheduled an A-rated “Super Sunday” on 17 November, when it will show only films that pass the test, such as The Hunger Games, The Iron Lady and Savages.

The A rating is the latest Swedish move to promote gender equality by addressing how women are portrayed in the public sphere.

As noted here, the Bechdel Test says nothing about whether the representation of women in a film is positive or negative, feminist or misogynist, merely about the level of participation women have in the story being told. (Existing ratings for sex and violence make no distinction between quality storytelling and exploitive crap, either.) And no one is being forbidden from seeing any film that fails to achieve this A rating. It’s merely offered for information.

Is there any downside to rating films as to whether they pass the Bechdel Test?

The comments section at that Guardian article is a depressing collection of failing-to-miss-the-point and fearmonging over the Imminent Death of Men. Which highlights, for me, how the only possible “downside” to such a rating would be the discomfort some people may experience when they are suddenly forced to recognize how poorly women are represented on the big screen.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

  • RogerBW

    The downside that comes to mind is that it’s very easy to game the system: throw ten seconds of screen time at a “chick scene”, qualify for an A rating. It could be two strippers chatting about how little they’re being paid, before the film goes back to rapetorturedeathkill.

    The Bechdel criteria are useful as a guide only as long as they are not enshrined in regulation, and not explicitly aimed at by filmmakers.

  • Jim Mann

    How do you handle cases like Gravity, which would fail based on the stated criteria?

  • Danielm80

    As MaryAnn pointed out, no one is being prevented from seeing movies that don’t have an A rating. I don’t think the makers of Sorority Bloodbath XIII have much incentive to game the system, unless they decide to market it as a date movie. In fact, they could probably use the lack of an A rating as a sales pitch, to show that they haven’t caved in to those sensitive chicks and their political correctness.

    I can imagine some gaming of the system when it comes to romantic comedies. The female lead might reminisce with her boss about their days of going to feminist marches, and then end up leaving her high-powered job to be with her boyfriend. She’ll realize that working day and night to get to the top doesn’t leave her fulfilled, and she’s lost sight of what’s really important in life: true love. The filmmakers will say, with a straight face, that the film is a look at the difficulties of being an empowered woman in today’s society. And, sadly, they may be right.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Does it? IMDb says that Amy Warren voiced the captain of the Explorer. Does Sandra Bullock’s character ever speak to her about something other than a man?

    But this does get to both the point and the limitation of the Bechdel test. On the one hand, is there a reason, story wise, that Clooney’s character has to be a man? On the other, in a case with such a limited list of characters, with a female main protagonist, should the absence of any other women be a demerit for the film?

  • The Bechdel criteria are useful as a guide only as long as they are notenshrined in regulation, and not explicitly aimed at by filmmakers.

    Who’s saying they would or should be?

  • You say it fails the test. Which it does. That doesn’t make it a bad movie.

    It’s when the vast majority of films fail the test that makes it a bad Hollywood.

  • I don’t think Bullock’s character talks to the captain of Explorer at all. And even if she does, the captain is not named in the film.

    Not *all* films need to pass the test. But a *much* larger number of them, in the aggregate, do.

  • I just thought of a potential downside: Some films will proudly announce that they fail the test, as a way to indicate that they’re not “chick flicks.” (Not that passing the test = “chick flick,” either. Except in the minds of men who fear women and see movies as a male space that women need to keep out of.)

  • RogerBW

    Well, that’s exactly what I’m seeing in this Swedish move — have women talking to each other, or don’t get a high rating. That makes it a check-box item for film-makers to include, like an adorable child in danger. When the test doesn’t have official standing, it’s useful as a shorthand for whether the film has interesting female characters at all.

  • Jurgan

    The danger of the Bechdel Test is that it’s neither necessary nor sufficient to make a movie feminist, but people may interpret it that way. I mean, Sex and the City passes the Bechdel Test, and I could imagine its producers saying “why are the feminists so mad? We passed the test- isn’t that what you want?”

  • Jim Mann

    But it seems like it’s a flaw in the test when a film centered around a strong female protagonist fails the test.

  • Danielm80

    Sure, but the failure isn’t really with the test. The failure is with a culture that’s so starved for stories about women that even this really limited demand–a movie with two women, who have a meaningful conversation–seems like a lot to ask. In that context, even this tiny step feels like progress.

  • Stephanie C.

    I think people who are treating it as a feminist litmus test, and therefore BAD! BAD! are missing the point of it in spades. There was never any part of the initial cartoon, which almost no one seems to have read (I’ve attached it) that said anything about the movie requiring the conversation to be important, just not about a man (this also means that say you have an office movie, and two female managers discuss how Bob is falling down on the job, it would not count; which means I also think that the person quoted in the article linked is incorrect; any movie where Hermione and McGonagall, or Mrs. Weasley and Ginny address each other, counts – I suspect she’s being uberstrict and only counting McGonagall dissing Umbridge, if that).

    But back to the cartoon. The one character *says* that it’s strict, and the real punchline is about Alien, not a particularly feminist film, with lots of death splatter. So dismissing it by saying that it’s a *feminist* rule is misleading; the original intent, though it appeared in a lesbian comic, is not what most people seem to think it was.

    This comic appeared almost 30 years ago. That we’re still having these conversations says to me that it might well be time to ramp up the ‘pay attention to this’ bullhorn.

  • RogerBW

    It’s a little disappointing that nobody’s come up with a better test in that time, and instead need to keep appropriating this one for purposes for which it was never intended.

  • Marshall Myers

    I have mixed feelings on the issue. On one hand, it’s good information to have, but as was noted here in earlier comments “Gravity” almost solely features a strong female protagonist and fails the test. On the flip side, men and women have relationships with each other, and they talk about relationships with there friends – so if a movie displays that in a realistic and respectful manner – should that count against the movie just because it fails the test? Human’s are much more than just 0’s and 1’s, and again we have a ‘test’ that tries to quantify the complexity of human relationships down to just that.
    A better way would be to see how female characters are treated and how men treat women in the movie. If its just information that’s going to be given to a patron, then other ‘tests’ need to be created to show different aspects of this complicated issue.
    Overall, I do think its a step in the right direction at the very least from a talking standpoint. Anything that gets a conversation started on this topic is worth discussing – and it needs to be discussed, otherwise nothing will be done about it.

  • Chris

    I don’t think the main utility of the Bechdel test is for rating individual films. As has been said, it’s very easy to throw in a terrible scene that fits the requirements, and a movie that passes may be extremely misogynist, while a movie that DOESN’T pass may be very feminist.

    The utility of the Bechdel test is in showing the larger trends of Hollywood. Don’t think about whether film A or film B passes the test… ask why so few films pass it. It addresses the larger issue of the exclusion of female characters from film (at least complex female characters). It’s a thought experiment, to me, not an actual ratings system.

  • cinderkeys

    I don’t see that as a downside. Those films will have already failed the test, and I doubt that advertising their failure will net them any viewers who weren’t going to watch in the first place.

  • Danielm80

    It’s not hard to construct a better test. The requirements are pretty simple. They’re the things people have been asking for over and over for decades. My test would look something like this:

    (1.) There should be a woman in the movie.

    (2.) She should have an actual personality.

    (3.) She shouldn’t be a stereotype.

    (4.) Her actions should affect the outcome of the story.

    I’d also create a test for the theatre that’s showing the movie. It would have only one requirement:

    (1.) Roughly 50% of the movies that are showing should have a woman as the main protagonist, or one of the main protagonists.

    I’m not sure a single theatre would pass the test.

  • Bluejay

    People are talking about a Mako Mori Test to live alongside the Bechdel:

    1. The movie has at least one female character
    2. who gets her own narrative arc
    3. that is not about supporting a man’s story.

  • RogerBW

    Seems reasonable to me — and Gravity passes it. (Well, depending on how you define “narrative arc”.)

  • But it’s no more a measure of the quality of the film than a rating for sex or violence is. Filmmakers are still making plenty of films chock full of sex and violence even though audiences get a heads-up that films contain such. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that filmmakers are dramatically constrained by those ratings systems. So why should we expect anything different here?

  • Think of it this way: Reverse the test. Rate films based on whether they contain two named male characters who talk to each other about something other than women.

    It’s *really* hard to come up with films that fail this test.

    And *that’s* the problem: Even really good films still, on the average, tend to have a dearth of significant female characters.

  • It’s a downside of our culture, which insists on defining men as “everything not woman,” even when the qualities it believes are not-woman — courage, for instance — are not unique to men.

  • Then we need to be better about explaining what the problem is, and how it needs to be solved.

    And also: In a movie environment that better represented women and women’s stories, a film like *Sex and the City* wouldn’t be as big a deal. After all, there are plenty stories about men that don’t make men look good. It’s just that we have lots of other more positive stories balancing them out.

  • Your qualifications could apply to many potential stories that would not be feminist. If a feminist litmus test is what you’re aiming at.

  • Whenever I mention the Bechdel Test or “strong female characters” or “woman protagonist,” there’s a veritable rush to be the first to reply “But *Alien*!!!” (Not that I’m suggesting that you’re doing this.)

    I think it’s noteworthy that the first movie that comes to mind for most people is almost 35 years old. If *Alien* were a woman, Hollywood would be writing her off as uninteresting and unappealing at such an advanced age.

  • RogerBW

    Depends on how successful it is. If these A-rating-only days become a frequent and widespread event, then certainly I expect to see films tweaked to qualify for them, just as horror films are tweaked to get PG-13 rather than R.

  • Danielm80

    Fair enough. I defer to Mako Mori.

  • LaSargenta

    Actually, lately I’ve rushed to say “Winter’s Bone”!!

    But, yeah. *sigh*

  • Bluejay

    Yeah, I’ve been thinking of reversing the tests as well, just to show how ridiculously easy they are to pass when it’s men being considered. If you reverse the Mako Mori Test — that there has to be at least one man, with his own narrative arc, that isn’t about supporting a woman’s story — that’s, what, 99% of all films ever made?

    As has been said many times, such tests don’t really determine the quality of a film itself, just as a rating for “violence and drug references” doesn’t tell you if a movie’s good or bad. But if, say, 90% of all films are rated for “violence and drug references,” that would tell you something about the culture at large and its relationship to violence and drugs. And if 90% of all films fail the Bechdel or Mako Mori tests, that tells you something about the culture as well — namely, that it considers male stories the norm.

  • Elwood72

    This is a useful test, even though I don’t think it would influence my decision about whether or not to see a particular movie. In literature, for example, realizing that “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” utterly fails the test is important information for understanding the book’s point of view and limitations. That doesn’t make it a bad book, but it does make it a book that is entirely about the perspective of the male characters named in the title. Rosa is not really developed enough to be a full “character,” and if she were, we’d be less forgiving of many (most?) of Joe’s decisions. Knowing this about a film going in could similarly help the viewer see the film for what it is.

  • RogerBW

    Bechdel has commented on this story: http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/testy

  • soirore

    Surely it’s most useful when reflecting on film trends and so forth. In my film diary I always note if a film is BC (Bechdel Compliant) and have noticed that as a feminist viewer hungry for female stories the more BC films I watch, the happier I am in my viewing choices despite it not necessarily representing my favourite individual films. Applied to society then on that basis the film watching public may benefit from a larger proportion of BC films but it may not matter if an individual film passes the test. Each film will have a rating but what really matters is that, say, 40% or so films pass.

    The Bechdel Test still has a place because although I like the Mako Mori test its successes can conform to the Exceptional Woman problem which isn’t that progressive

  • To pass the Bechdel Test, a film needs only one conversation between women that isn’t about a man. Just *one.* It doesn’t mean those women cannot also have another conversation about a man.

    This test is not quantifying the complexity of human relationships. It demonstrates that Hollywood too often reduces women to nothing but adjuncts to men.

  • LaSargenta

    Is there a downside?! Hell, yeah! The use of this as metrics for anything more than shear ironic commentary is ludicrous. The fact that there are people out there with power over the pocketbook who are determining which films get backing or distribution who need to be presented with curves, violin graphs and other representations of the stats of the requirements of this ‘test’ in order to notice that 51% of the population worldwide is usually treated as a prop in their f&*(%ng movies, tv shows, or miniseries is pathetic.

  • This is not being used to determine which films get backing or distribution.

    The men who control Hollywood know damn well that women are underrepresented. This is the way they like it.

  • Drave

    I don’t think there is a downside. Most of the articles are making it sound like these theaters are turning the test into a new ratings category, like R or PG. That would be a problem if that were the case, but it’s not what they’re doing. They are just adding some kind of indicator that tells us whether the film is Bechdel Test Complaint. I completely support this, and I wish every theater would start doing it.

  • LaSargenta

    I know they’re not going to use this to supply backing or distribution. I’m saying that the people who want to do this are thinking that publicising it is going to >>bring attention<>create change<<. I think that's baloney. That's like pink for breast cancer.

  • Bren Garrett

    Here is something for you, it is easy to pass the test, but even if ya pass it doesn’t mean anything in the long wrong, try taking a look at the Gor Novels, they pretty much say, a women can be happy being a sex slave to men and should just learn to enjoy it now. Guess what it passes the test. I could make a movie about women who love being servants to men, and have two talk to each other about something other then their captors, then I pass the test.

    Here is how I would alter the test

    1. Do you have two named Female Characters

    2. Do they contribute to the plot of the movie/book/game/etc.

    3. Do they have a conversation within the story that helps drive the plot or contribute to character develoupment.

    And there ya go, that is how it would help movies and the women shown in media. Any problems?

  • Danielm80

    Here is something for you, it is easy to pass the test, but even if ya pass it doesn’t mean anything in the long wrong…

    You could write a conversation in which two women complain that a man is a sexist pig. It would fail the test.

    There’s certainly value in constructing a better test, but that’s only a short-term goal. The important thing is getting Hollywood to reward the films that pass.

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